Curtains Ordered for Media Coverage of Returning
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, October 21, 2003; Page A23
Since the end of the Vietnam War, presidents have
worried that their military actions would lose
support once the public glimpsed the remains of U.S.
soldiers arriving at air bases in flag-draped
To this problem, the Bush administration has found a
simple solution: It has ended the public
dissemination of such images by banning news
coverage and photography of dead soldiers'
homecomings on all military bases.
In March, on the eve of the Iraq war, a directive
arrived from the Pentagon at U.S. military bases.
"There will be no arrival ceremonies for, or
media coverage of, deceased military personnel
returning to or departing from Ramstein [Germany]
airbase or Dover [Del.] base, to include interim
stops," the Defense Department said, referring
to the major ports for the returning remains.
A Pentagon spokeswoman said the military-wide policy
actually dates from about November 2000 -- the last
days of the Clinton administration -- but it
apparently went unheeded and unenforced, as images
of caskets returning from the Afghanistan war
appeared on television broadcasts and in newspapers
until early this year. Though Dover Air Force Base,
which has the military's largest mortuary, has had
restrictions for 12 years, others "may not have
been familiar with the policy," the spokeswoman
said. This year, "we've really tried to enforce
President Bush's opponents say he is trying to keep
the spotlight off the fatalities in Iraq. "This
administration manipulates information and takes
great care to manage events, and sometimes that goes
too far," said Joe Lockhart, who as White House
press secretary joined President Bill Clinton at
several ceremonies for returning remains. "For
them to sit there and make a political decision
because this hurts them politically -- I'm
Pentagon officials deny that. Speaking on condition
of anonymity, they said the policy covering the
entire military followed a victory over a civil
liberties court challenge to the restrictions at
Dover and relieves all bases of the difficult
logistics of assembling family members and deciding
which troops should get which types of ceremonies.
One official said only individual graveside
services, open to cameras at the discretion of
relatives, give "the full context" of a
soldier's sacrifice. "To do it at several stops
along the way doesn't tell the full story and isn't
representative," the official said.
A White House spokesman said Bush has not attended
any memorials or funerals for soldiers killed in
action during his presidency as his predecessors had
done, although he has met with families of fallen
soldiers and has marked the loss of soldiers in
Memorial Day and Sept. 11, 2001, remembrances.
The Pentagon has previously acknowledged the effect
on public opinion of the grim tableau of caskets
being carried from transport planes to hangars or
hearses. In 1999, the then-chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, said a
decision to use military force is based in part on
whether it will pass "the Dover test," as
the public reacts to fatalities.
Ceremonies for arriving coffins, not routine during
the Vietnam War, became increasingly common and
elaborate later. After U.S. soldiers fell in Beirut,
Grenada, Panama, the Balkans, Kenya, Afghanistan and
elsewhere, the military often invited in cameras for
elaborate ceremonies for the returning remains, at
Andrews Air Force Base, Dover, Ramstein and
elsewhere -- sometimes with the president attending.
President Jimmy Carter attended ceremonies for
troops killed in Pakistan, Egypt and the failed
hostage rescue mission in Iran. President Ronald
Reagan participated in many memorable ceremonies,
including a service at Camp Lejeune in 1983 for 241
Marines killed in Beirut. Among several events at
military bases, he went to Andrews in 1985 to pin
Purple Hearts to the caskets of marines killed in
San Salvador, and, at Mayport Naval Station in
Florida in 1987, he eulogized those killed aboard
the USS Stark in the Persian Gulf.
During President George H.W. Bush's term, there were
ceremonies at Dover and Andrews for Americans killed
in Panama, Lebanon and aboard the USS Iowa.
But in early 1991, at the time of the Persian Gulf
War, the Pentagon said there would be no more media
coverage of coffins returning to Dover, the main
arrival point; a year earlier, Bush was angered when
television networks showed him giving a news
briefing on a split screen with caskets arriving.
But the photos of coffins arriving at Andrews and
elsewhere continued to appear through the Clinton
administration. In 1996, Dover made an exception to
allow filming of Clinton's visit to welcome the 33
caskets with remains from Commerce Secretary Ronald
H. Brown's plane crash. In 1998, Clinton went to
Andrews to see the coffins of Americans killed in
the terrorist bombing in Nairobi. Dover also allowed
public distribution of photos of the homecoming
caskets after the terrorist attack on the USS Cole
The photos of coffins continued for the first two
years of the current Bush administration, from
Ramstein and other bases. Then, on the eve of the
Iraq invasion, word came from the Pentagon that
other bases were to adopt Dover's policy of making
the arrival ceremonies off limits.
"Whenever we go into a conflict, there's a
certain amount of guidance that comes down the
pike," said Lt. Olivia Nelson, a spokeswoman
for Dover. "It's a consistent policy across the
board. Where it used to apply only to Dover, they've
now made it very clear it applies to everyone."